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Vol. XXX No. 7, August 1-15, 2020

Ramanathan Krishnan’s Tryst with History

by Partab Ramchand

It was in 1960 that an Indian, our city’s own Ramanathan Krishnan, made it to the semi-finals at Wimbledon. It remains a record for our country. We publish this tribute to this national legend to commemorate the diamond jubilee of that landmark event. May it inspire our countrymen to aim for the title someday – Editor

Sixty years ago, Ramanathan Krishnan created history by becoming the first Indian to enter the semifinal of the men’s singles at Wimbledon. Before him, Ghaus Mohammad had made it to the quarterfinal in 1939 before going down to the ultimate champion, Bobby Riggs of the USA.

Krishnan, however, had served enough notice that great things could be expected of him. Ever since he became a national champion at 16, he was looked upon as a very special talent. In 1954, he became the first Indian to win the junior Wimbledon title. Two years later, he shocked the 1954 champion Jaroslav Drobny, seeded No. 5, in four sets in the first round of the main draw.

By 1959, Krishnan was acknowledged as one of the leading players in the world. He led India to the Davis Cup inter-zone final in 1956 and again three years later, notched up victories over all the other top stars in the game. In 1959, he defeated world no. 1 Alex Olmedo to win the Queen’s Club tournament, a curtain-raiser to Wimbledon. Olmedo, in fact, went on to win the singles title at Wimbledon that year and on his way, he defeated Krishnan in the third round.

In 1960, Krishnan became the first Indian to be seeded in the men’s singles at Wimbledon. Seeded no. 7, the Indian ace survived a couple of tough matches in the initial rounds and then came up against Luis Ayala, the fourth seed from Chile, in the quarterfinal. Ayala was a seasoned campaigner and was one of the leading players in the game, but playing some of his best tennis, Krishnan won 7-5, 10-8, 6-2 to keep his tryst with history. The British press went gaga over this touch artist and hailed him as the “Madras Magician.’’

As only to be expected, Krishnan’s run of successes had generated tremendous enthusiasm back home and tennis fans could not wait for his semifinal against top seed Neale Fraser to start. However, the Aussie left-hander, who went on to win the title, had brought his game to its highest peak just at the right moment and his devastating serve, smashes and volleys were altogether too much for the more artistic but softer game of Krishnan. Neale Fraser won 6-3, 6-2, 6-2.

It was a disappointment, but Krishnan’s historic feat did not go unnoticed. He became the first tennis player to be awarded the Arjuna award in 1961, followed by the Padma Shri in 1962. Incidentally, Krishnan also entered the semifinals in 1961. Again he was seeded No. 7 and this time, got the better of the fourth seed Australia’s Roy Emerson in the quarterfinal in probably the best match he has ever played at Wimbledon. However, Krishnan once again went down to the ultimate champion Rod Laver in straight sets.

Krishnan never really could mount a serious challenge for the Wimbledon crown thereafter. There was one realistic chance in 1962, when he was seeded fourth behind the three Australians, Laver, Fraser, and Emerson – enough indication of his ever growing stature in world tennis. Unfortunately, he had to default in the third round to John Fraser, brother of Neale following an injured ankle after trailing 2-5 in the first set.

The following year, Krishnan was unseeded and made it to the fourth round where his opponent was Emerson. Naturally, there was a lot of anticipation that Krishnan could get the better of the top seed, but Emerson gained suitable revenge for his defeat two years before by winning straight sets.

Thereafter, Krishnan went down in the initial rounds at Wimbledon and in the first Open competition in 1968, there was an intriguing first-round pairing – Krishnan vs Pancho Gonzales. By this time, Krishnan was in the twilight of his career and the eighth-seeded American at 40 – nine years older than the Indian – won in straight sets. That was Krishnan’s swan song in the singles event at Wimbledon.

As a pioneering great, and as a path breaker, Krishnan has no equal. After six decades, his feat remains unsurpassed for an Indian player, the closest being Vijay Amritraj who made it to the quarterfinals in 1973 and 1981; and Ramesh Krishnan, who entered the last eight in 1986. And even after so many years, the afterglow of Krishnan’s wizardry doesn’t seem to fade. Historian Duncan Macaulay summed up the Krishnan style aptly when he wrote after his win over Emerson: “This was one of the best matches Krishnan ever played at Wimbledon. He turned Emerson’s speed to his own advantage and directed his shots with a magical caress to those parts of the court where Emerson wasn’t.’’ What a quaint little description of Krishnan’s touch artistry!

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